What We Owe Dogs Part II

To read part I, click here.

During the No Kill Conference of 2010, I was fortunate enough to have some time after Seth Godin’s keynote address to talk with him for a while. As a student of social change, Mr. Godin had some interesting things to say about how it generally occurs and the patterns that repeat themselves throughout history as a result of basic human nature. After answering some general questions about the No Kill movement, he said something I will never forget. He told me our movement was ripe for splintering, and predicted that in the near future, fissures would begin to arise which would divide our movement into different factions. As the recent events regarding the killing of a dog named Nikki have shown, his words were indeed prophetic.

As both a lawyer and an advocate for the legal rights of animals, my goal, though there are many fronts on which this battle must be waged to reach this end, has always been a singular one: work to guarantee the rights of animals in law. This is my goal not only because animals, like people, possess inalienable rights that deserve recognition, but because the goal of a legal republic should be to enshrine the rights of those living in that society into law so that they are guaranteed, and not subject to the whims and discretion of individuals who might seek to infringe upon the rights of others.

The No Kill movement is still a young movement, and while our tactics and our focus will need to evolve with the passage of time to address the changing nature of sheltering as a result of our success, until now, our goal has been to save shelter animals in two primary ways:

1. To get animals in imminent danger within shelters out of harm’s way through rescue (or adoption); and,

2. To reform the way our shelters operate so that they are no longer a system of death camps for animals, but what they can and should be: safe and temporary way stations for our nation’s homeless animals and a gateway to a better life, a second chance, a new beginning.

To achieve these goals, we have sought to constrain the abilities of those who have power over life and death; to strip them of the unfettered discretion that allows them to behave in ways that are not in the best interest of animals, and in ways that do not reflect the values, the concern, the compassion for companion animals that most Americans, who pay their salaries, hold as a personal value.

In this fight, the American rescue community has led the charge. Given the brutal nature of many shelters and given the hostility to collaboration expressed by so many shelter directors across the nation who treat them with disdain and contempt, I am a great admirer, and will always feel deep personal gratitude toward rescuers. It is why I dedicated my most recent book to the rescue community, which, as the dedication reads, “with small budgets and big hearts, provide our nation’s homeless animals with the kindness, devotion and lifesaving that most shelters and animal protection groups refuse to.”

In their willingness to challenge the status quo, in their willingness to take the large, national groups to task for their betrayals, and in the countless lives they save every year, the rescue community in this nation has been the backbone of the cause to build a better world for companion animals. At this point in history, it is not difficult to imagine how much worse the plight of our nation’s homeless animals would be without them. Rescuers not only vastly increase the number of animals saved in communities across the nation, in some communities, they are the only ones providing animals with an option other than death. It is why so much of my advocacy over the past several years has focused on rescue rights legislation which would empower the rescue community to save even more animals, animals that shelters are determined to kill.

But by empowering rescuers to save lives that shelters are determined to kill, it was never the intention to thereby empower an entirely different group of individuals with the same power that the traditional sheltering community has historically used and abused. Rather, it was the intent that such laws would begin to lay the necessary scaffolding to build a legal infrastructure that would, ultimately, enshrine the rights of animals for all time, stripping away the ability of any person to behave in a way that violates an animal’s basic and most fundamental right to live, whoever that person might be.

While the cause I champion has enjoyed tremendous support with the New York City rescue community up until this point, I can see that this issue may indeed be where Seth Godin’s predicted fissure begins. For now that, as result of the incident that occurred in New York, I have expressed the belief that, ultimately, the discretion as to who lives and who dies should not be subject to the predilections of individual people, including rescuers, but, rather, should ultimately reside with the law, there are those within the rescue community, who, like the traditional sheltering establishment before them, chaff at the suggestion that their discretion in this regard should be limited or constrained. And in objecting to this suggestion, they are paradoxically making the very same argument that shelters and the large, national groups have made against these sorts of laws and which up until this issue broke, they wholeheartedly rejected; primarily that rescuers are “experts” who shouldn’t be second-guessed, that forcing rescuers to give animals to other rescuers will put animals into the hands of hoarders, and that rescuers should always have the final say over life and death decisions for all time—the same leap of faith that the traditional sheltering establishment has historically asked us to take when it comes to our nation’s shelter directors.

In defending the ASPCA’s killing of Oreo (and then fighting Oreo’s Law), it was argued that shelter directors should not be second-guessed when they decide to kill an animal. In defending the killing of Nikki (and fighting the idea of a similar policy as it relates to rescue groups),* it was argued (by people who fought for Oreo’s Law) that rescue groups should not be second-guessed when they decide to kill an animal. According to the logic of the former, there isn’t a single shelter director in the nation who would needlessly take the life of an animal. According to the logic of the latter, there isn’t a single rescue group in the nation who would needlessly take the life of an animal. Both notions are naïve.

In addition, I am now being portrayed as the enemy of the rescue community which, for the past 22 years, I have wholeheartedly championed. As a result of expressing my views on this issue, I have become subject to the same baseless accusations and inflammatory rumors by some in the New York rescue community as the traditional sheltering establishment has been spreading about me for the past 15 years. I could lose heart over these accusations and rumors, or I could take a lesson from Seth Godin, and take solace in what my own experience in this movement over the last two decades has taught me over and over again: when you stand up for what is right, even if it may be unpopular, history will vindicate you.

For though what I have suggested is being portrayed as “extreme” among some in the New York rescue community; among the American public, among the vast majority of people who studies reveal already believe that animals should not be killed when they have a place to go, this issue is not controversial at all. To the average, animal-loving American, whose values ultimately dictate the nature of our legal landscape, it is not who is doing the killing that motivates their position as seems to now be the case with some in the New York City rescue community, but rather a reaction against the very notion that anyone should be allowed to kill an animal when a viable alternative exists. Ultimately, whether it is a shelter or it is a rescue group that refuses such an alternative is of no consequence to the vast majority of people, what matters to them, as should matter to all of us, is what is in the best interest of that animal, who, like each and every one of us, wants to go on living. And I will go on fighting the fight I have always fought, with the belief that there are enough people out there who share my point of view (or will in time) so that the future I envision will come to fruition.

The last week has shown me yet again that there will always be those who are willing to follow the movement up to a point, but who will drop away once the infrastructure we are trying to create effects them or people they know personally. That, as Seth Godin explained to me, is inevitable. So be it. I will continue to say what I believe the animals would say if they could speak. And we will see whose position, in the end, wins out in the court of public opinion, whose opinion most faithfully represents the love, concern and compassion of most Americans whose hearts and minds are not clouded by allegiances to the people who decide the fate of animals, but, rather, lie with the animals whose fates are being decided by people. To do anything less would not only betray my responsibilities, it would also make me a hypocrite, and that is something I never want to be.

* Please note:  Defenders of the rescue group categorically deny that any offer to save Nikki was made. But many of them also argued that even if an offer was made, the rescue group was not obligated to say, Yes. It is this latter claim that I take issue with.